Lextech News

Why prototyping is critical to mobile apps

February 9, 2011

  • Alex Bratton

The specs were solid. The wireframes and GUI designs right on target. The development team dove in and cranked out an app that hit the need perfectly.

And the first time the executive sponsor runs the app his initial question is, “Why is the background blue?” Of course this is the same person who reviewed all of the documentation and signed off on the milestones, including the color blue, saying the whole time it was just what he had in mind.

So what the heck happened?

There are key differences between mobile apps and most any other software. Mobile interfaces need to be very refined and intuitive. In addition, they need to be built around a touch based experience, which is very different than clicking a mouse on a web site. That touch interface makes using the app more intimate and personal.

That’s also why many people don’t truly understand a mobile app until they have a chance to touch it.

The sooner the end user can touch the app, the sooner it becomes real enough for them to provide real feedback. By touching it I mean just that — navigating through the app by touching the screens. Building early prototypes in code is one way to get that user feedback, but it means getting the development team involved way before the real vision and needs for the app have been established. It also means that you are probably providing a higher fidelity graphical interface which the user will fixate on rather than paying attention to the general flow and navigation of the app which needs to be locked down first.

An approach we use at Lextech is creating interactive prototypes at the wireframe stage of design. We use tools developed internally that allow any team member to create the prototypes quickly without any coding. The screens are composed of line drawings and linked together in a way that lets the user explore the app but not get bogged down evaluating pixel level button placement.

Focusing on usability and navigation is critical early in the app development process.

Once the application flow is really solid, we transition to the real look and feel for the app and create prototypes that look exactly the way the finished app will. This encourages users to react to an app rather than screenshots, engaging them in the process at a much deeper level. From this process we’ve seen late stage interface changes nearly disappear, putting higher quality apps in users’ hands sooner.